Who Was Charles Manson?

Charles Manson Charles Manson
Cult leader Charles Manson seen at California Medical Facility in Vacaville, California, in August 1980, where he was serving a life sentence for the Tate-LaBianca murders. Albert Foster/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

On Nov. 12, 1934, Charles Manson was born, and though he spent half his life in prison, his life and crimes have both enthralled and repulsed the American public for decades. His death from cancer on Nov. 19, 2017, has put him back in the national spotlight, reviving the mania and the murder that surrounded the Manson Family cult. That's what Matt Frederick, Ben Bowlin and Noel Brown talk about in a special two-part series of Stuff They Don't Want You To Know, separating the fact from the folklore in Charles Manson is Dead, Part One, where they focus on what made Manson such a national source of fascination.

Born to 16-year-old Kathleen Maddox, Manson had a tumultuous childhood. His mother was a heavy drinker, originally called him "No Name Maddox," spent years in jail for attempted robbery, and once sold him to a waitress for a pitcher of beer.

Manson himself was in and out of juvenile detention centers and other correctional facilities and institutions. He was so accustomed to prison that when he was being released in 1967 at the age of 32, he asked to stay because he didn't think he could function in the real world.

But he was released and went to the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco at the height of the free love movement. This is where he began to attract the young, aimless women and men who would later make up what became known as the Manson Family. Manson had learned to play the guitar in prison and tried his hand at music.

The Beatles song "Helter Skelter" arguably sent Manson over the edge: He interpreted the lyrics to mean that there was a coming race war between white and black people, and that black people would win but be unable to self-govern. At that point, they would turn to the Manson Family to lead them, who would have been laying low until the race war was over.

To hurry along this race war — and his own dominance — Manson instructed his followers Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, Patricia Krenwinkel and Charles "Tex" Watson to go to a house in Los Angeles owned by music producer Terry Melcher and "destroy everyone inside." At the time, the house was being rented by filmmaker Roman Polanski and his wife, movie star Sharon Tate, then eight-and-a-half-months pregnant.

The night the Manson Family descended on them, Polanski was away, and Tate was entertaining houseguests. All of them were brutally stabbed to death by Atkins, Krenwinkel and Watson, while Kasabian acted as a lookout. They scrawled "Pig" on the front door in Sharon Tate's blood, to plant the seed that this was the work of a black militant group, and set off the race war of Manson's fevered imagination.

Dissatisfied with his followers' work, Manson decided to strike again the next night, this time at the home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. They also were brutally murdered, with the word "war" carved into Leno's abdomen, and the words "death to pigs" and "healter (sic) skelter" scrawled on the walls, again in blood.

Not long after, 26 members of the Manson Family were arrested on suspicion of car theft; Manson himself was found hiding on a ranch in Death Valley. In jail, Atkins boasted about the murders, leading investigators to link the Manson Family to the brutal killings. During the trial, Manson caught the attention of the country by insisting on representing himself, carving an X into his forehead that he later changed to a swastika, and continuing, somehow, to enchant the public.

Despite being convicted of murder and conspiracy to commit murder, and being sentenced to death (it was commuted to life in 1972 when California ended the death penalty), he received marriage proposals and more fan mail than any inmate in history. He also gave interviews, and became an inescapable part of the cultural zeitgeist.

So why has the public been so fascinated by Manson and his murder spree? And what does an attempted assassination of Gerald Ford, and even Bryan Cranston have to do with Manson? Listen to the entire podcast to find out. And don't forget to check out Charles Manson is Dead, Part Two when the guys dive into the conspiracies that surround the Manson Family. We'll be posting more about it on Dec. 26, 2017.